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Season 1 Episode 9 – Rita Schnarr

Rita Schnarr is a Clinical Counsellor based in Vancouver. Using a holistic and biopsychosocial approach, Rita customizes treatment plans for individuals, couples, families, workplace employees and executives with a range of presenting issues including anxiety disorders, mood disorders, OCD, behavioural disorders, relationship difficulties, and life transition.

In this episode, she shares how her anxiety story inspired her to become a counsellor, and how  “A lot of times when we have anxiety, we’re scared to face our fear and we have to push ourselves through it.”

John Bateman (JB): Hi Rita. How are you doing?  

Rita Schnarr (RS): I’m good, John. How are you?  

JB: I’m doing fine. I’m hanging in there. Thank you very much.  

RS: You’ve had a long day.  

JB: Yeah, I mean it’s interesting. It’s been no longer than any other eight hour day I’ve worked. It’ll be interesting to monitor my emotions after this, to see if they go because it’s been – like anxiety. A roller coaster of emotions.  

RS: Sure is! So we appreciate you doing this for us. Thank you.  

JB: Well that’s great and I really appreciate you being on and being a part of it. As you may or may not know by now, that my first question to you is Rita, tell us your anxiety story.  

RS: I’m actually a clinical counsellor with Dr. Joti Samra & Associates. I’ve been very fortunate to use that platform as a therapist over the past years to help people who are also affected with anxiety and and panic disorder. And part of my reason for wanting to share my story is because I think it’s so important that other Canadians are aware that they’re not alone and that they can get help. And so my story started actually when I was in my mid-twenties, and I had a panic disorder, very, very severe one that lasted for about 15 years. And my symptoms ranged from everything from sweating and trembling, shaking. I would have hyperventilation attacks, nausea, IBS, dizziness, really you felt like you were dying and it would always come on right before an anticipated family event where I felt where I was gonna be out of control or situations where I felt powerless.  

RS: So I, I noticed that the trend was that it was always before a family or a work related event or something where I just felt really scared to attend. And it became very problematic. I experienced it most days for months at a time. It would come on at any time. I would be in the middle of the Christmas party and all of a sudden I could feel like the sweat coming down me, and I could feel my breathing start to increase and I would be running off to the bathroom before I’d know it. My husband and I would have to leave more parties than I can tell you, and it would last literally half the night where I would be shaking uncontrollably, so sick and it really impaired my ability to work. I experienced infertility for about 10 years and I truly believe that my anxiety disorder affected my ability to conceive and to be able to be healthy. It was pretty tough. It really, really difficult. And, you know, I went to the doctor, and I remember talking to them about my symptoms and I remember my doctor telling me to go home and drink a glass of orange juice and to just relax. So obviously that didn’t work.

JB: I’m not laughing at you, I’m just laughing at the concept of being told to relax and how, and how effective that is.  

RS: It did not work. And you know, at that time, nobody ever explained to me, Rita anxiety can be caused by a whole pile of contributing factors. There’s genetic factors, biological, personality. There could be environmental factors and actually some that I could control. And most of the time when I had my attacks, I felt out of control and no one taught me how to manage it. And so it really became a problem. I just felt like I was always in danger. And you know, anxiety is, I try to explain to my clients now is that, it’s at one point back in the stone ages, it was actually a good thing because we ran for our lives when we were in trouble. But when you feel like you’re in trouble all the time and you’re constantly on the fight, flight, freeze mode, it can become very problematic because you become isolated. And then the cycle continues. The more you worry, the more the cycle is reinforced and then you just get worse and worse. And yeah, it was very, very difficult.  

JB: Yeah. One of the things I’ve noticed about your story so far is that you’ve described a lot of physical symptoms and I think it’s important for people to understand that. Of course anxiety manifests in behavioural ways, whether you are irritable or tired or throwing temper tantrums. There’s a lot of ways anxiety manifests emotionally, but we haven’t talked about about how it manifests physically. And I think that’s an important point.  

RS: Hmm. Yeah, for sure. And you know, the one area that was never taught to me by the doctor or, or I didn’t even really know that therapists could treat this at the time. I didn’t know about CBT. I had no idea existed. Eventually I did some research and I found an anxiety course that lasted two two months. Right. And that was my lifesaver. 

JB: So was that a course that that helped you, or is that a course that educated you?  

RS: Both. Yeah. What it taught me and I now incorporate everything that I was taught into my own practice. The two really important pieces that I learned was the prevention part and the intervention part. The prevention part is really about getting your body more relaxed, doing it every day to ensure that your anxiety stays at a lower level. Because as you know, when you’re in an anxious mode, you feel like you’re going a hundred miles an hour. And I had to retrain my body to slow down. I did that through practicing a lot of four square breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, meditation, spending time in prayer. That was really, really helpful, really asking God to help me manage all of the feelings and all of the thoughts that were haunting me and making me worry.  

RS: So that the prevention part was really important and we spent a lot of time honing in on those skills to make sure that we learn how to breathe properly and to hold the deep breath then to teach the body how to breathe, especially when we were going into a panic mode. And then, the intervention piece was really good too, because when I could feel my anxiety rising, like I just described earlier before a party or anticipate it on a highly threatening situation. I learned how to perform a relaxation technique to try and calm down and then try and manage the current situation by restructuring and balancing my worrying thought. And also by exposing myself to the fear, ‘cause a lot of times when we have anxiety, we’re scared.  

RS: We’re scared to face the fear and we have to push ourselves through it. So that was the other piece of the puzzle really, allowing myself to sit with that and know that the anxiety wasn’t gonna take over and that I could manage it and it wasn’t managing me. So CBT is really quite powerful and mindfulness is another very important part of what I try and help my clients with now. A lot of people confuse mindfulness with meditation. And it’s actually about really keeping focused on moments, you know, and just accepting the worrying thoughts and not judging them and just kind of sitting with them, and not being so hard on ourselves and, you know, going okay, oh, I’m ruminating right now. Okay. Well, all right. Let’s just let this worry go.  

JB: What allowed you, or what inspired you to go from being essentially a patient to being a therapist?  

RS: It’s a long story, but, when I was going through my infertility, I ended up doing a lot of volunteer work, helping other patients who were going through a lot of the stressors and a lot of the treatments that I was going through at the time. And I found myself using a lot of CBT to help the people that I was helping in that volunteer role. And I realized it was something I really enjoyed doing and I wanted to pass on all of my knowledge and all of the skills that help me and literally saved me, so that other people would be able to live fuller lives and not suffer like I did. You know, anxiety never goes away.  

JB: I think everyone that has and has experienced an anxiety disorder knows it doesn’t go away completely. You have to manage it. You’re going to have moments like, ‘Oh my God, here we go’. And you just have to see it and try and treat it quicker and on the spot as opposed to letting it ride like a wave over you and before you know what you’re having another panic attack, so you just manage it better.  

RS: Yeah. That was one of my hardest realizations there and you know, I don’t like this language saying there’s no cure. But it’s just that, that’s not what we should be endeavouring to do. I feel like we need anxiety for many reasons. But that for me it was a hard step to make. Realizing it was something that I have to maintain for the rest of my life. 

JB: For some people, that’s a psychological leap. How do you help people kind of get over that hurdle or do you find that to be a problem at all within your practice?  

RS: You have to look at things. I always tell my clients, let’s not treat anxiety like it’s the enemy. It’s about learning how to problem solve, and if there’s unexpressed anger working through, what boundaries do you need to set for yourself. A lot of people who have anxiety, what I noticed is they forfeit self-care. They forget to work out. They forget to eat healthy. They get, they get so caught up in their worry that their self-care goes out the window. So we have to bring that into their lifestyle and just finding more balance and also getting a touch with their values, like what matters to them.  

RS: And really honing in on the things that matter and reminding them that it is something that’s not going to take over their life, that they can actually manage it. And they always feel better knowing that they have tools that they can apply in between sessions. That it’s not something that they just talk about, but they can actually do something about it. And that’s the best part I think, of CBT is that you can actually look at someone’s thoughts and tweak them and look at, at things in a more balanced way and not jump into a lot of the thinking traps that we get caught in. Like, you know, catastrophizing. That’s the thing that I do all the time. Oh yeah. And fortune telling. You know, ‘Oh my God, this is going to happen’.

JB: Oh yeah, I’ve done it. I did a lot of fortune telling, leading up to, uh, this for sure.  

RS: I bet. And then, when we finally get to the event, it’s usually not so bad. I don’t want to diminish the real problems that exist in people’s lives. I do agree that there are real, absolute, problems that we can manage it at least with the skills to make it a little easier. Yeah. And you know, talking about it is so helpful going for therapy. The Mindshift CBT app that Anxiety Canada has for people who have more mild to moderate levels of anxiety is fantastic. If you don’t have it downloaded, it’s fantastic. You know, I’ve been very fortunate to have a great supervisor in Dr. Joti Samra, who’s one of the best psychologists in Canada and she’s taught me a lot and it’s been so helpful to know that she’s not perfect.  

RS: And that, you know, she has anxiety too. And to help me when I experienced it and she always reminds me it’s good that we can relate to our clients. We can be empathetic and go, yeah, it sucks having anxiety. I get it. And being able to help them. So, you know, my goal is to just pass on my knowledge and to help as many people as I can through the tools that I’ve been blessed to have learned. And we’ve got to reduce the stigma: a lot of people are afraid to ask for help. That’s why #OurAnxietyStories is so helpful.

JB: Yeah. It’s a useful thing to do. Earlier you mentioned ‘fight, flight, freeze’, that old cave person instinct. We’ve seen society evolve so much in the past 100 years. How far off are we from, from reconciling our ancient impulses and our modern situation?  

RS: It’s a good question. Obviously in this day and age we have new stressors, different stressors than back in the caveman days when their anxiety was needed to save their butts so they wouldn’t die from animal in the forest. But now, I think our stressors are a lot different. Financial stressors, especially if you live in Vancouver, you know, younger folks I’m seeing more and more, people in their twenties and early thirties reaching out for counseling because they’re having a difficult time managing anxiety and managing life. And I think that the way to try and bridge this and help people is to give them these skills earlier on, perhaps in high school or in the workplace where you’re teaching people how to manage their anxiety, how to manage their stress. Of course, social media also doesn’t help. There’s more accessibility to comparing ourselves to other people and then there’s more bullying that happens because of that and, and more competition in the workplace. So it can definitely be tougher for younger people.  

JB: Yeah. Do you find, over the trajectory of your career, that young people are more open to coming in and speaking to you?  

RS: Yeah, I have noticed that they’re very comfortable doing so. And I take my hat off to the millennial generation because they’re not afraid to go, ‘you know what, I’m not feeling good. Something’s wrong’. And they reach out for help. I think that they set an excellent example to all the other generations that it’s okay. It’s okay to just notice that you’re not feeling a hundred percent. And to go and get some help from therapists that really know how to treat anxiety disorders and panic disorders. ‘Cause you don’t have to suffer. I’m speaking from over a decade of horrible experience of suffering. And my life would have changed dramatically if I had the skills that I know now.  

JB: Oh yeah. For sure. My first experiences were very young, but then it really hit me in that transitional age, 17, 18, 19 in there, which seems pretty common. For whatever reason, whether that’s a societal or whether that’s chemical thing, something kicks in and does that to us. I don’t know. But even then it took a long time just to even get a diagnosis or get a name to be put on it. And luckily, that informed me. I’ve got two kids now that are teenagers, they’re 17 and 14. And I’ve always been very open about mental health issues. Do you find that parents are pretty open about it with their kids now too? Or do you or do you interact with parents much? 

RS: I usually treat older, older teens, adults, young adults and of course older adults, but the parents now are usually a lot more hands on and savvy. My husband and I always laugh back in the day our parents would probably smack us on the side of the head and say go ahead, deal with it.  

JB: Yeah, definitely, definitely.  

RS: But now parents are definitely are more involved with their kids and I get a lot of calls from the mother or father calling about their teen and wanting to get help for them and they pay for it and they support them through it. So there’s definitely more support and more handholding. Maybe that’s good and bad. You know, I try to discourage too much helicopter parenting. I think that can be a problem sometimes for some teens where they’re trying to discover the discover themselves without having their parents watch over everything. But at the same time, it’s good the parents support them.  

JB: Yeah there’s definitely a balance. With me, my mum didn’t know what was going on and she definitely supported me once we, once we figured all that out, but she was from that older generation. And I had an uncle who missed an entire year of school because he had ‘nerves’. He didn’t go to school because he had nerves and we all know what that was: he had anxiety. It’s just now the language has changed. My daughter, when she was in school, she had one friend who she particularly had problems with, and they went to counseling at school. They just went and checked themselves in with the counselor. And I thought, that’s a big victory. I thought something’s happening.  

RS: Right. Do do you think that will have a trickle down effect as we progress societally and economically? As these kids come into their own and become older, do you think that they’re gonna help turn the system in the direction that it needs to go in terms of more funding? We had a caller earlier talking about how we need free mental health care. Do you envision a world with that?  

RS: I hope so. I think a mental disability impacts obviously the economy because if you can’t work and you can’t go in because you’re not feeling well. It’s gonna affect the bottom line of a company and how well they run. So I agree there needs to be funding. I think therapists need to be covered. I mean, I have, um, as a clinical professional I have clients come in and say, ‘Oh, I only have five sessions this year’ and I’m like, you’re kidding me – five? – that’s not enough. It’s ridiculous. So these insurance plans, the whole healthcare system has to change. It really does need to support the growing population where disorders are a lot more prevalent. And you know, it’s very common. In any given year, one in five people in Canada are experiencing some sort of a mental health problem. That’s a lot.  

JB: 20%! It sure is.  

RS: It’s a lot. So, you know, why are we not helping them? Why are we not providing programs that are free of charge? That’s why I think it’s so great Anxiety Canada is providing information for people who can’t afford a traditional therapy.  

JB: Yeah. Do you think that within the healthcare system what they’re not providing health for – mental health – there’s a real correlation with those mental health issues spawning into what funders consider to be issues that it’s okay to cover?  

RS: Exactly. Yeah. 

JB: I’d be really interested knowing the stats of people who have panic attacks, who think they’re having heart attacks going to emergency. I’d be interested in knowing that statistic alone, you know, because I’ve had three guests on today who said they thought they were having a heart attack and they went to emergency. And that’s quite a stat within the fact that I’ve interviewed maybe 25 people at this point.

JB: Another thing you touched on that I really want to touch on quickly before we say goodbye. How has faith played a role in your managing anxiety?  

RS: I think faith can be useful at the prevention and intervention stages. If you can pray and it’s really focused, and accept what’s there, which is also letting go of a lot of stuff that we can’t control. That’s a really comforting feeling to know that you can just release, and give it to God. So I absolutely support that and encourage people, if they have faith, to incorporate it into their own treatment plan. With my clients who have faith, I do see a difference.  

JB: That’s interesting. Do you think, when you mentioned prayer, there’s anything, someone without traditional faith can do to have a similar outcome?  

RS: Well, you know, mindfulness is more of an act. It’s more of just staying really present, and what prayer does is it allows us to just kind of sit with the thought. And release it rather than ruminate. You know what I mean? It gets us more still in the moment.  

JB: Those are all important points. Thanks for being a part of this Rita, we really appreciate all the help you do. I really appreciate your candour and your sharing your experience here.  

RS: Aw, thanks John. I thank you for doing this for us as well. Good luck everybody. Bye bye.